At the caucus: Don’t order the fettuccine
On Jan. 7, I boarded Amtrak in Colfax, joining other passionate souls heading east on a “Peace Train” to support our Democrat of choice in the Iowa Presidential Caucus. In Des Moines, we disembarked to spread the gospel of fearless paradigm change and participate in a grassroots American process: the Iowa Caucus.
We immersed ourselves in the explosive scene: canvassing, phone-calling likely voters, penning postcard notes, staffing events – and attending caucus trainings. We “grokked” the 15 percent viability concept and played pretend-caucus using musical genres in place of candidates, learned about last-minute voter registration and the sanctity of the 7 p.m. closed-door deadline for inclusion in the head count.
As Californians, we could observe (but not vote in) the caucuses, and could not stump for candidates unless we were publicly elected officials ourselves. Only Democrats registered in precincts would be included in counts; all would have their names checked against a master list and had to register and provide verifiable residence if not listed. It sounded daunting. (After the caucus, I learned a tiny percentage of Iowa residents actually participate.)
I assisted the single paid campaign worker for my candidate in a small town. Her support came from college students who published a newspaper presenting candidates’ opinions with more clarity than many news media.
After telephoning every possible supporter in the county and canvassing quaint neighborhoods solo, in single-digit temperatures, I was ready for the event. At 6 p.m. on caucus night, the campaign coordinator dropped me at the college as an observer.
The “Take Back America” mob seemed to be running the caucus, guarding the entrances to all three precinct rooms. I set up next to another campaign, a cluster of out-of-state undergrads, who confided that they preferred my candidate’s platform, but as “this senator had paid for the trip to Iowa,” they were supporting him.
By 6:30 p.m., bedlam ruled. If anyone was in charge of the caucus, I never saw them.
At 7 p.m., I decided to observe a precinct without a designated captain from my campaign. I moved to the back and lowered my placard as the three college-age girls caucusing for my candidate stared dejectedly at the loud, sign-waving members of other preference groups.
I joined the girls. Climbing on a chair, I raised my placard and voice in support of our candidate. No one offered objection, or asked to see proof of my Iowa residence. People wandered in, joining groups, past the 7 p.m. cutoff.
I exited and dived through the next precinct door. No one noticed. My presidential preference group, plentiful and rowdy, waved me over, and I repeated my chair performance. Chaos reigned; heads were recounted, possibly including me.
I moved to the third precinct room. Just as before, my preference group welcomed me with wild abandon, and again no one questioned my active presence. I almost got counted again, insisting “not me” to avoid it.
Afterwards, I realized I could have been counted in all three precincts if I’d chosen to abuse the system. Many people wandered in unchallenged. Were they counted? Was this scenario an isolated case of lax enforcement, or how the caucus works? If so, what do the final delegate tallies actually represent as an electoral indicator?
At my candidate’s post-caucus party, I learned this “irregularity” had occurred elsewhere. In one precinct, our preference group was viable at first. After 7 p.m., a rush of people poured in, blending with the crowd. In spite of our group’s protest, the precinct chair insisted on a recount – that the new arrivals were “on the honor system,” hence legal. Our group lost viability.
A long-time precinct captain told me she did not recognize half the people at her caucus location. When I asked if the newcomers checked out, she shrugged, “Hope so; it was too chaotic to know for sure.”
Statewide “caucus irregularity”?
Musing over the questionable validity of results about to be blasted world-wide by media, I ordered fettuccine alfredo at the party. Instead, I got served macaroni and cheese. A metaphorical image flashed: The American public ordered fettuccine at the Iowa Caucus but got duped with macaroni and cheese.
Should the public accept this? Send the “food” back! Demand the truth about a skewed process that represents a very tiny percent of the population anyway. Who truly won this caucus?
As I rode Amtrak home to California, I considered not ordering fettuccine, certainly never again in Iowa.
Alexi Bonifield of Nevada City is a freelance writer and passionate advocate of the American democratic process.
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